Earlier this year I was asked a question by a reader who was cleaning out her kitchen, reading labels and throwing away items that had hidden trans fat. She asked:
If it only adds a dietarily insignificant amount of trans fat per serving to the food, is it something to really worry about? Especially if it is a really small amount?
It was a loaded question at the time, yet here we are three months later and it still weighs heavily on my heart. All of us are going to have this question at some point in time, and if we’re reading labels like we should be, it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. (Here’s the original post.)
Here’s my answer to her question – both the original and additional thoughts I’ve had on the topic since January. I hope that my stream-of consciousness help you in making your own decisions in your real food journey.
There’s no standard definition of “insignificant amount.” It’s merely another way to say “it’s less than the threshold to which the FDA requires us to label,” which I believe is 0.5g per serving.
The first half is sorta true and the second half is correct. Federal law has created a threshold at 0.5g per serving, so this is the standard definition of “insignificant amount” given to us by the government. If there is more than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, it must be labeled. However, if there is less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, it does NOT have to be labeled. In fact, not only can the nutritional label show “0g,” but the product itself can be labeled with a whole plethora of option, including “trans fat free,” “free of trans fat,” “zero trans fat,” and “no trans fat.”
If a product contains an ingredient that is trans fat, but is below the threshold, the manufacturer must use some sort of annotation near the offending ingredient in the list of ingredients (an asterisk is most commonly used) and a disclaimer stating “adds a dietarily insignificant amount of trans fat.” (You can read the full legislation.)
Basically, the manufacturer can market the product as one thing while the list of ingredients shows another. To the untrained eye, the food looks like a sheep (labeled “zero trans fat” on the front), walks like a sheep (“0g trans fat” in the nutritional label) and even baa’s like a sheep (deemed a “negligible source of fat” by the FDA”). But let me assure you folks, this is no sheep.
It’s a wolf, trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
“Insignificant” is a very subjective term. Of course the amount of trans fat is not important to the company making the foods – they’re in business to make money! On the consumer side, insignificant will vary from one person to the next. An “insignificant” amount of peanuts to someone who is highly allergic is a very big deal.
I still agree with my original statement. This article is about a boy who was severely allergic to peanuts and died because he ate HALF of one cookie that was made with peanut oil.
Being the math nerd I am, I calculated just how much peanut oil would be in a single cookie… so we could at least get an idea of how much (or little) this boy could consume before triggering an allergic reaction.
Using Nestle Toll House’s original recipe, yield and serving suggestions (found here), and substituting peanut oil for butter, there is 0.8 tsp of peanut oil in one single cookie. If the boy ate half a cookie, he consumed approximately 0.4 tsp of peanut oil. When you convert it to grams, it’s equal to only 2 grams of peanut oil, less than the weight of a single penny (which weighs 2.5g).
2 grams is not a lot, and 0.5 grams is even less, but it’s still a far cry from “insignificant.” Dictionary.com defines the word as “unimportant, trifling, or petty; too small to be important; of no consequence, influence, or distinction; without meaning; meaningless.” If the boy had consumed only 0.5g of peanut oil, would there are been “no consequence?”
Whether it’s in a small amount or large amount, the ramifications of trans fat in our diets is nowhere near “of no consequence.” This toxin has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and high cholesterol. Would any of you consider these potentially fatal diseases to be unimportant or meaningless?
I firmly believe that the only ones qualified to determine whether or not something is dietarily insignificant is us, the ones consuming the food.
“Insignificant” is an adjective, and putting adjectives in the list of ingredients seems sneaky. We don’t see “refreshing water” or “sticky xanthum gum” listed.
Part of this answer is me being cheeky, but I still hold firm to those statements. “Insignificant” IS an adjective and we don’t see other ingredients being described in the list. It just feels devious to me. If 0.5g of trans fat really wasn’t that important, then why bother putting a statement on the product saying so? It’s as if the manufacturer thought the consumer would need an additional reassurance that consuming the item is ok. Which it isn’t. And then it makes the disclaimer feel like a lie.
Half of one gram in one serving of one item in our kitchen is more than likely not a big deal. However, if every single item in our kitchen had this same amount – per serving – imagine how high the totals could reach!
This statement is certainly still true. The threshold is based on the amount per serving, yet the majority of society does not take the time to read how many cookies are in a serving and then dutifully dole out just that many for a snack. I don’t know about you guys, but there’s no counter remorse when I’m eating cookies, nor remorse! That takes the fun out of eating them!
Those small half grams can easily add up throughout the day, and weeks and months… I offered the reader an example using pennies.
We see one penny on the street and feel too lazy to pick it up. We think, “Oh, it’s just one penny. It’s not really worth much.” But what if we collected one penny each day? We’d have nearly a $1 after three months and close to $75 in 20 years. Certainly not an “insignificant” amount anymore.
The point of today’s post is to encourage you to never think that anything you do is insignificant. Every single thing you do has some sort of impact.
Whether you switch from skim milk to 2% or choose coconut oil over olive oil when making popcorn at home, those little decisions add up over time. Eventually, these small steps will turn into habits. Those insignificant moments define where you’re headed in your real food journey. Take each one captive, make a good decision, and keep going in the direction of better!